The pantomime was a popular form of entertainment in ancient Greece and, later, Rome. Like theatre, it encompassed the genres of comedy and tragedy.
The style and content of modern pantomime have very clear and strong links with the Commedia dell’arte, a form of popular theatre that arose in Italy in the Early Modern Period, and which reached England by the 16th century. A ‘comedy of professional artists’ travelling from province to province in Italy and then France, they improvised and told stories which told lessons to the crowd and changed the main character depending on where they were performing. The great clown Grimaldi transformed the format. Each story had the same fixed characters: the lovers, father, servants (one being crafty and the other stupid), etc. These roles/characters can be found in today’s pantomimes.
In Restoration England, a pantomime was considered a low form of opera and they gradually became more topical and comic, often involving as many special theatrical effects. Augustus Harris, manager of Drury Lane in the 1870’s is now considered the father of modern pantomime. Traditionally performed at Christmas, with family audiences consisting mainly of children and parents, British pantomime is now a popular form of theatre, incorporating song, dance, buffoonery, slapstick, cross-dressing, in-jokes, audience participation, and mild sexual innuendo. There are a number of traditional story-lines and there is also a fairly well-defined set of performance conventions.
Panto story lines and scripts typically make no reference to Christmas, and are almost always based on traditional children’s stories. Plot lines are often ‘adapted’ for comic or satirical effect, and certain familiar scenes tend to recur, regardless of plot relevance.
Some of the most popular titles are:
• Aladdin (sometimes combined with Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves)
• Babes in the Wood (often combined with Robin Hood)
• Beauty and the Beast
• Cinderella, Dick Whittington and His Cat
• Goldilocks and the Three Bears
• Jack and the Beanstalk
• Little Red Riding Hood
• Mother Goose
• Peter Pan
• Puss in Boots
• Robinson Crusoe
• Sleeping Beauty
• Snow White
There are traditional characters and situations in panto such as:
• The leading male juvenile character (the ‘principal boy’) – is traditionally played by a young woman, and usually in tight-fitting male garments (such as breeches) that make her female charms evident.
• An older woman (the pantomime dame – often the hero’s mother) is usually played by a man dressed in over-the-top dresses.
• Audience participation, including calls of “Look behind you!” or “He’s behind you!”, and “Oh, yes it is!” and “Oh, no it isn’t!” The audience is always encouraged to boo the villain and “awwwww” the poor victims, such as the rejected dame, who usually fancies the prince.
• A song combining a well-known tune with re-written lyrics. The audience is encouraged to sing the song; often one half of the audience is challenged to sing ‘their’ chorus louder than the other half.
• The animal, played by an actor in ‘animal skin’ or animal costume. It is often a pantomime horse or cow, played by two actors in a single costume, one as the head and front legs, the other as the body and back legs.
• The good fairy always enters from stage right and the evil villain enters from stage left. In the medieval mystery plays the right side of the stage symbolised Heaven and the left side symbolised Hell.
• The members of the cast throw out sweets to the children in the audience (although in some cases this is not possible due to health and safety restrictions!).
• Sometimes the story villain will squirt members of the audience with water guns or pretend to throw a bucket of ‘water’ at the audience that is actually full of streamers.
• A slapstick comedy routine may be performed, often a decorating or baking scene, with humour based on throwing messy substances.
• The Chorus, who can be considered ‘Extras’ on-stage, usually appears in all scenes and perform a variety of songs and dances throughout the show. They are a very important role in Pantomimes.